Resilient farmers vs. COVID-19: A ‘cover story’ family farm

For the Burnhams, the lesson of COVID-19 is more of a reminder, really. Family is the core of a farm business

This family deserves special attention, so as we conclude this series with Country Guide we wanted to bring you the story of a family that we call our “Cover Story Family.” In our view, they seemed to pretty much get it right over the past year.


Getting it right refers to the bold steps our ag community took in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. This family contributed to each of our previous articles, having shown resiliency in each of the four areas we covered: disruption, relationships, families and operations.


What has stood out for us the most with this family is the high value they quickly placed on family — focusing immediately on protecting and supporting one another. We were also captivated by their commitment to lead with family values, and how family health and the family farm dictated their decision-making. Let us introduce you to the Burnham family.


Paul and Anne Burnham opened Burnham Family Farm Market in 1994. Being a sixth-generation farm family, the Burnhams have experienced challenging times before. Like most of us, they have battled crop disappointments, market lows and labour challenges — all while raising a family of four children on their farm near Cobourg, Ont. Burnham Family Farm Market is well-known in the area for providing farm fresh vegetables and fruit grown in their fields, and over more than 25 years, all their children have been involved in the farm in one aspect or another.

I have had the pleasure of working with this family over the last couple of years on their farm succession plans. The cash cropping business is transitioning to son Mark, and the successors of the farm market are daughters Kate and Amy. Whereas the transition path for Mark continues as planned, the COVID-19 pandemic put a fast-forward on the plans for the market and allowed Paul and Anne to see the strength of the children they have raised.


“There were a lot of questions… a lot of uncertainty,” says Anne, matriarch of the family. “It required us to change our thinking weekly. Every week we adjusted our vision and thought ‘Okay, maybe we can manage like this.’” Like other families, their uncertainties included whether their migrant workers would arrive for the spring plant. One worker from Mexico did arrive and the family purchased a trailer for him to quarantine in. Usually, the Burnhams have four migrant workers. Luckily, Paul was able to forecast the changing regulations on those coming into the country and secured additional workers from a farm transfer.


Next, key decisions had to be made for the family and for their domestic workers. “Our family sat down and made critical decisions early and quickly. And we were on the same page. We knew we couldn’t meet our target opening date for the market, and that gave us time to think and think and think,” Anne says with a laugh. “It required a lot of flexibility and adaptability.” The Burnhams concluded they needed distinct and separate groupings to allow farm operations to continue while exposing the fewest number of people to multiple and frequent interactions.

It was decided that Anne would move out of the family home into daughter Kate’s home on the property, where she would care for her grandson Weston. Kate would move back into her childhood home and Anne would be secluded from everyone. This arrangement was based on protecting the vulnerable family members and supporting eldest daughter Jennifer, who owns a horse farm.


Anne explains Jennifer’s situation: “She let her staff go and shut the doors. They wanted to be protected from additional people and were not willing to have their son exposed. We didn’t know how long this would last, but they needed help babysitting as they were doing all the horse chores. It ended up being seven weeks I lived in the house by myself and watched Weston each day.”


The entire family was supportive of this decision, including daughter Kate, who found herself stepping into a leadership role on the farm sooner than expected. “When it all comes down to what is most important right now, it’s the family. So I think having my nephew around is a great reminder that if you ever get weighted down by business, or by the COVID-19 pandemic, spend a few minutes with him and it brings back to reality that family is the most important thing. And when you have that to give you some perspective, it’s pretty easy to make those decisions,” Kate says.


While the family was separated into their pods, crucial decisions still needed to be made on planting and the operations of the market. They say they had to rely on the communication skills they had learned while working on succession planning and how to best make decisions.


One of the first decisions was to bring their market online. “For the first time ever, I had to categorize every single product that we sold on our online shop,” Kate says. “We have always had a website, but it has not been anything more than a place to get information about the farm. There was never any interaction between us and the customers on the site, so to create that shop was a lot of work upfront.”


The family was lucky to have a friend who was temporarily laid off from her marketing job and able to get the e-commerce site up for the Burnhams. She was one of several community members who helped the family.

Anne shared that once they started a plan for commerce for the market, they needed to better understand where their local staff stood with returning to work.


“Again, it was using our communication skills non-stop and finding out when they would be comfortable to come in and get started with cleaning,” she says. It was mid-April at this point and the Burnhams needed a plan to open the market.


“We allowed each of them to accept or decline, without any penalty. A couple of people declined but most agreed to carry on. They were thankful there would be no customers in the store at this point. We divided them into two teams so if someone did contract COVID-like symptoms, we could still have one team in place that hadn’t been exposed to the other.”


Next, they determined disinfecting protocols using a combination of sources, the health unit guidelines and government directives. “Our staff were really great and there were no problems accepting the new protocols and procedures,” Anne says. Full opening of the family’s market was delayed one month but website sales and curbside pick-up were well-received by the community in the interim.


Owners Kate and Amy are grateful that once they were able to fully open the market to include in-person shopping, they were closely on track with revenue from the previous year.


With operations and key decisions made for both in the field and the market, it was clear to the family that Kate and Amy were more than ready to lead the family farm market. “It sped up the process for us and I had everyone’s support. It pushed me into the role that I was maybe resisting a little bit taking full responsibility for, but I think it was a good little push for us,” Kate says.


Anne could not be more proud of all her children and how they rallied together over the past 10 months. “Most decisions we made as a family. There were minor differences and opinions, but we are quite unified in our overall and foundational values,” she says. “And that is always helpful that we are not shooting for something different; there just might be small variations in how we get there.”


A key for her family is how they have learned to compromise. “It’s about saying ‘Okay, I hear this person, and it’s really important to hear that person, I will cut back.’ It’s kind of a give and take, but one thing we do have is a common set of foundational values which really aids us.”


Daughter Kate could not agree more. “There is always going to be some kind of conflict but I think our family, no matter what is going on business-wise, is still a family at the end of the day and nothing is ever going to change that. There’s always challenges working with family members but at the end of the day, you are always a family and you get through it.”


Darrell Wade is a certified family enterprise adviser and a CAFA-certified farm advisor. He is the founder of Farm Life Financial Planning Group and can be reached directly at darrell@farmlifefinancial.ca.




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